Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Are historical land use conditions by definition a racist plot?

The Washington Post has an article, "Ward 5 pushes back as city moves more trucks to already industrial neighborhood," about Ward 5 residents complaining about the ward's possession of a preponderance of the city's industrially-zoned land, so they believe that continued use of this land for industrial purposes makes the ward the city's "dumping ground."

For safety reasons especially the transport of volatile chemicals through Washington, an alternative freight rail routing through Maryland was proposed by the National Capital Planning Commission.

Last summer a freight derailment in Ward 5 created problems ("In aftermath of derailment, D.C. officials turn focus to CSX and its cargo," Washington Post) and more recently in the same vicinity, two CSX employees were killed when they stepped off their freight train to check on a problem, and they were hit by an Amtrak passenger train.

Generally, industrial land in cities has been located along rivers, waterfronts, and railroad tracks.  Ward 5 has a preponderance of the city's railroad trackage as three of the four major passenger rail lines and two of the three major freight rail lines are located in Ward 5.   Since land on either side of the railroad tracks tends to be zoned industrial, most of the city's industrial lands are located in Ward 5.

- Penn Line/Northeast Corridor to Boston
- Camden Line to Baltimore
- Metropolitan Branch to West Virginia (partly in Ward 4)
- but Union Station to Virginia is in Ward 6 (as is some of the Union Station railyard)


- the Metropolitan Branch (is primarily a freight railroad used also for passenger traffic)
- Washington Branch (from Baltimore to DC, includes what is called the MARC Camden Line)
- Alexandria Extension (in Ward 6 and/or Ward 7/8) to the RF&P Subdivision (from Union Station to Virginia Avenue to Maryland Avenue to Virginia)

River frontage in DC is no longer particularly industrial because much of it is controlled by the National Park Service and used as park land.  But Georgetown used to be a warehouse and industrial center, and the Washington Navy Yard on the Anacostia River was a major industrial site. 

Interestingly, some writings (notably John Wennersten's Ancostia: The Death and Life of an American River) recount criticisms of the park use of the banks of the Anacostia River as denying African-Americans job and business development opportunities around the maritime industry.

Conundrum of planning at three scales: metropolitan; city-wide; and neighborhood/ward. The article mentions the Ward 5 Industrial Lands Study, which I criticized for being too parochial--only looking at Ward 5, when other parts of the city have similar land use conditions--and namby-pamby in terms of providing concrete recommendations for retention of industrial land through zoning controls. See "DC Ward 5 Industrial Land Transformation Study identifies zoning issues (that I raised 6 years ago...)."

The fact is the city needs some "Production, Distribution, and Repair" land to serve its various uses city-wide. From the metropolitan scale standpoint, displacing these uses to the suburbs still requires trips to and from the city from these facilities, and there are limited entrypoints, therefore, displacing industrial uses contributes to traffic congestion.

But that means that Ward 5, because that land already exists in that zoning category, bears the majority of the costs of providing that as a "public good" to the rest of the city. (Ward 4 and Ward 6 also have industrial lands, and there is railroad trackage in Ward 7 and a semi-abandoned Anacostia Railyard in the middle of what otherwise would be Anacostia Park.)

VRE and storage.  This comes up with Virginia Railway Express program to build a storage yard in Ward 5, adjacent to New York Avenue.  It is an undesirable use.  It's not likely a preferred use.  But the railroad was there first and railroads have extranormal protections under federal law to maintain their use of land for railroad purposes.

That doesn't mean that there aren't alternatives, they just aren't cheap, and it also requires an upgrade of the Long Bridge over the Potomac River which connects Union Station to Virginia.  Currently there are only two tracks, which CSX owns.  As a result, there are limited "slots" for passenger railroad traffic.  This means that instead of running trains back and forth as round trips, VRE sends most trains into Washington one-way, and they return in the evening.  This requires that each train be stored in DC during the day.

I've recommended that by merging the MARC Penn Line with the VRE Fredericksburg Line the need for storage facilities would be significantly reduced.  See "A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines."

Environmental Justice.  The issue of Ward 5 and Industrial Land raises tricky environmental justice issues.  Are Ward 5 residents dissed because they are primarily African-American and so the uses end up "in their ward."  Or did the residents end up there because properties were cheaper because they abutted or were near industrially zoned land?

Conclusion.  While I think all residents deserve to be protected from nuisances. But when you live by industrial land, I don't think you have the right to fight continued use of that land for PDR type uses.

Calling it "a dumping ground" is a convenient obfuscation of the facts. Someone at a presentation I was at recently talked about how easy it is to "racialize" most any issue in DC. It's easy for me to say, with my "white gaze," that's what's going on, but at the same time, it's easy to racialize issues that are not so accurately categorized in that way.

Notes Aesthetics.  For what it's worth, in the DC State Rail Plan, I did encourage placemaking-architecture-urban design related mitigation, to make the railroad "architecture" fit in better to the city, and some of those ideas--based on a 1902 article from House and Garden Magazine entitled, "Railroad Beautiful," did make it into the plan.

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At 3:15 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


This reminds me of your article a couple months ago about MBTA's commuter rail infill station at New Balance in Allston (a section of Boston). Before moving to the area 6 years ago, I lived in Boston and a couple of its inner suburbs, including frequenting the area. You may have written about this, but it's not just New Balance, but also reclaiming an industrial area for retail, etc.

I assume the answer is no, but has the District approached MARC about an infill station on the Camden or (preferably) Penn lines that could reuse some industrial-zoned areas? I assume the answer is no, and I don't know if the resistance would be more on MARC's side or the District's. But, it could be a way of enticing businesses to locate there and hopefully also provide jobs to that area, making it less of a "dumping ground".

This (general) area isn't as blessed with legacy rail lines as some other cities (and, to be honest, I think it really is a shame that the Georgetown Branch wasn't repurposed as a transit line, in contrast to the MBTA's Green Line D branch, which also runs through park land for a mile or so). But, is the area working its existing rail lines as much as it could? Yes, unlike for MBTA, where the line to Framingham is used by CSX though not a major through route), the Metropolitan and Capitol subdivisions are major through freight routes.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

at first when the idea of an infill station in the vicinity of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenues was suggested, I wasn't supportive, because there isn't a lot of "commuter" activity.

But I came around, in terms of treating it as an access issue.

Anyway, the concept is in the DC State Rail Plan (at least it should be, I haven't read the final document) because it was discussed within the informal stakeholders advisory committee process, which I participated in.

I wrote about it in my post on bringing London Overground approaches to MARC in 2015, and subsequently.

I mentioned to VRE paying towards this as a mitigation benefit for their storage yard.

I should have added this to my Purple Line complementary transit improvements program. I guess I will, as it gives me an excuse to write about it with what I know now (basically that there is a snowball's chance in hell of any of it coming to pass at least on the part of the PL concessionaire).

It would be best for the station to be on the Penn Line which has service throughout the day and evening, whereas the Camden Line does not.

And like in my Purple Line discussion about integrating fare zones for MARC and Metrorail in Montgomery County, the same could be done with this station to make the charges more like Metrorail.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Your Georgetown Branch point is really great and illustrates the planning issues that fell through the cracks as the rail industry declined.

First, it happens I just read a 1983 article from Trains Magazine about "commuter rail" and Conrail. My understanding of how local services were created was wrong.

It turns out that after Amtrak, "local railroads" still ran a lot of commuter services, at least in the Northeast and MidAtlantic through Conrail, which absorbed a number of failed railroads out of the bankruptcy of Penn Central (which merged up more than just the PRR and New York Central).

Congress passed a bill in 1981 requiring that Conrail devolve these services to the states, which they had been running for at least 8 years since the creation of Amtrak.

Stakeholders figured Amtrak would end up running them but for the most part that didn't happen.

Speaking of MBTA, they had already been working with Boston & Maine for a few years to run commuter services, and had the foundations of MBTA already.

In NY (and CT) the, existing Metro North (which had picked up some passenger services ) took on the Conrail routes, with CT paying New York MTA to run the "New Haven" services.

In Maryland, the state created MARC and in NJ, NJ Transit was created. Etc.

Anyway, the line was abandoned in 1987. Neither DC nor Maryland had a whole lot going on in terms of planning for commuter rail. And it wasn't a traditional commuter route. Even so, it was always in the plans, especially by MoCo, that this ROW would be useful for transit.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

PLUS, you really need to talk with me about those Silver Spring pieces. I had a brief conversation with both HR and CA about it. Not enough. Both, I braced at the Takoma parade.

But now is the time to talk with HR... it's a way to hang his future political vision and program not just for Silver Spring and East County, but the County as a whole.

... but I am going away for 10 days starting Saturday.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infill commuter rail stations make zero sense.

Infill regional rail stations make a lot of sense. But you have to get rid of the 'commuter' rail mindset. And you have to offer actual all day service.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


In re your third email, yeah, family duties and work have gotten in the way of doing much about that. I have talked to Hans in the past several weeks a couple of times at neighborhood social events about this, including making I think a similar point about vision. He strongly encouraged sending letters and contacting the transportation committee as well as the planning committee. I presumably need to work on Hucker since he's my district rep.

I have been meaning to put something together at least as a first communication to the relevant councilmembers based on your recent posts. Any recommendations for what to do as a private citizen of the county would be appreciated.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...

In re Anonymous' point about commuter rail vs regional rail is well taken. Seems like we'd need to make some serious capacity increases to make that happen (as much as trails are great, it is disappointing this area doesn't have as much legacy rail in place that say, Boston, had). And that not only requires dollars, but real cooperation among jurisdictions as well as a real future vision.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Sure commuter rail vs. passenger rail.

Camden and Brunswick and VRE lines are commuter rail.

The Penn Line, which runs throughout the day, and now on weekends too (for what, going on three years now?) is passenger rail.

Similarly, SEPTA's regional rail, MBTA, LIRR and Metro-North, probably much of NJ Transit, Metra in Chicago run 7 days/week, so they are passenger rail or regional rail, but still structured of course around commuting.

So an infill station on the Penn Line for the New York Avenue corridor makes tons of sense.

Similarly, wrt past writings on merging the Penn Line and the VRE Fredericksburg Line, then you extend that reality of 7 day service all the way to Fredericksburg.

Note that separately, MARC is working with DE and SEPTA to either extend SEPTA to Perryville or to extend MARC to Newark or Wilmington.

That makes merging those two lines even more important.

Not to mention the recommendations in the PL program piece about creating bi-directional service on the Brunswick Line, at least from Frederick to DC.

Items 3-6 (and sort of 7-8) are relevant to integrating railroad services into the metropolitan transit system

But while I wrote about adding the White Flint infill station, I didn't think about the New York Avenue station as part of this program.


VRE's constraint besides demand of course is the Long Bridge, but probably by the time I die (hopefully not for 30 more years), VA DRPT may well have developed a very robust program for intra-state rail of various types, building off VRE and the Amtrak Virginia program.

VA DRPT is 100% behind expansion of Long Bridge and has an MOU with DC that DRPT will be the lead (because it matters so much more to them).

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

it's good you've talked with HR.

Do you know Reemberto?

I think we need to try to be able to do a presentation to the Urban District and CItizens advisory boards.

And of course, letters, etc.

I forgot about TH. I don't know him. But I am always impressed with his active outreach program for his office. It was an oversight not to send him stuff.

wrt CA, even though I know it, he brought up "constraints." But he likes my concept of "Transformative Projects Action Planning."

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... but we haven't really talked about the Silver Spring pieces/vision/concept specifically.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, given MARC and VRE's current operations, even an infill station on the Penn Line doesn't make sense.

When they're ready for all-day clockface service (every 30 mins off peak) then we can talk.

In other words, when the regional rail 'system' approaches rapid transit levels of service, then you can consider rapid transit style station spacing.

We're a long, long way from that. American rail operators have difficulty even envisioning what that kind of service would mean or could look like - even in the places that have most of the infrastructure in place to do it (New York, Philly).

At 3:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Septa Regional Rail only runs hourly outside of certain lines.

I think it's reasonable to build the kind of service you think we should have via the Penn Line.

- merging the lines like I suggest

- and creating the equivalent of a London Overground system

can get us toward it.

But at the same time, we don't have the density of Greater New York so it's difficult to compare ourselves to them in terms of what's realizable and realistic in terms of service here.

Especially because face it, outside of BWI what destination is there between DC and Baltimore that helps to generate all day, bi-directional demand?

E.g., Metrolink/Coaster are great railroad passenger services in terms of equipment, but not schedule, and we have more frequent service and better connecting services than them.

Philly's problem is outmigration. The city isn't the primary destination for many. New York, same thing in a different way. NYC and Greater New York have different interests.

But if the same kind of London Overground approaches could be introduced to LIRR and Metro North, and a schedule and fare media integration could happen with NJ Transit, it would be completely different.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The New Haven line has the kind of service you're talking about.

There are a few more people living there compared to here.

... though I've never been to Asia. I imagine that Tokyo area services run on the kind of frequency you assert should be the basic.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a little different but they've added a third track to the Oceanside station in North San Diego.

I guess the two tracks contributed to scheduling issues as the station is used by Metrolink, Coaster, and Amtrak (plus freight).

FWIW, I think I've blogged or at least mentioned in the comments for Metrolink-Coaster the same point as merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg lines into one. There is no reason that their shouldn't be one train service between San Diego and LA via Orange County, rather than having to switch at Oceanside. (The alternative for through service is the Pacific Surfliner.) But the North Coast Transit District, separate from that of the main San Diego County transit district, wants to do their own thing.

These are the kinds of "in the weeds" details Chris Gibb got into when evaluating last year's system failures on the Southern Railways passenger lines in Greater London.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess I actually mentioned the idea in comments on a Transport Politic piece.


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